Be sure to read part one of this series.
Guest column by Jo Miller
Our delegation found immense difficulty grappling with the reality of our government’s involvement in El Salvador’s conflict. The United States funded the Salvadoran military with more than $4.5 billion, armed them, trained them at the School of the Americas, and ignored the death squads and rampant human rights violations.
Franciso Mena, a Salvadoran and the director of CRISPAZ, told us about his father who is a former officer in the Salvadoran army. He attended the School of the Americas. He gave an illustration his father learned there about a fish in a fish bowl.
The instructor asked, “How do you destroy the fish?” The answer: Eliminate the water. The fish represented rebel leaders and what they fought for, and the water was the people supporting them. They were taught to eliminate the people.
CRISPAZ started during the war to bring down delegations from the U.S. so they could witness what was happening and go back to the States to tell people. Some U.S. citizens came to El Salvador to be human shields because they knew the military wouldn’t attack villages they stayed at.
“It’s one of the most beautiful things people have done,” Mena said. “I’m forever grateful.”
Groups of Americans, largely made up of churches, began the Sanctuary Movement in the 80’s where they created Underground Railroad-esque paths of safe passage to the U.S. They brought Salvadorans and other Central Americans experiencing the same kind of government oppression to the United States secretly, in defiance of current immigration law.
When El Salvador signed peace accords in 1992, Mena said it was naïve to believe such a violent war would resolve right away. The amnesty law that was adopted created a weak foundation for society, allowing for justice and truth to be pushed aside. War criminals were never brought to justice. It robbed the Salvadoran people of the acknowledgement of their suffering they so desperately needed to heal. The trauma passed down to the children.
“As human beings that have this small piece of land on this planet, we want to share what war does,” Mena said. “There are no winners, no losers, only destruction.”
Current Conflicts, Hope and Hard Work
Sister Peggy O’Neill, an American Sister of Charity, has lived and served in El Salvador 32 years. She first came during the war and said her rudest awakening was seeing the inhumanity and inequality that has now scarred the country.
“The kids were born into the sadness. They were born into the loss. They were born into the no options,” Sister Peggy said. “You can’t erase the bad things, but you can learn to manage them. Art can open circles for you to imagine.”
In the town of Suchitoto, Sister Peggy runs an art center called Centro Arte para La Paz (Art Center for Peace). Students there study music, dance, visual arts, and more, free of charge.
Youth in El Salvador suffer from crippling poverty and because of their lack of opportunities for their future they often are easily recruited by gangs. But Sister Peggy said if you give them the dignity of learning something, such as a musical instrument, they can’t be recruited by a gang because they don’t care about that. They have something to be proud of and to work toward.
Still, youth that aren’t in gangs are still in danger of being killed by both gangs and the police. Gangs beat or kill anyone that cross into the wrong neighborhood, gang member or not.
We met with an organization called Servicio Social Pasionista that works with youth in areas particularly plagued by gang violence. They try to keep them out of gangs by promoting peace through hip-hop, rap, graffiti art, and break dancing. They also teach youth their rights, so they know they don’t have to accept oppression from the national police.
Up to 2017 there have been 789 cases of police officers accused of violence against and murder of youth, according to Pasionista. The government has taken no action. The police kill who they think are gang members secretly without any legal process. They indiscriminately beat youth on the streets, make them take off their clothes to look for tattoos, arrest them without cause, interrogate them, dunk their heads under water, and threaten their families. There are cases of innocent young men and women being detained for years without a proper hearing.
One of the main barriers to healing the violence and poverty problems lies in education. While education has improved since the war, many families still cannot afford the school uniforms and books required for primary and high school. Hardly any can afford university tuition.
We visited Programa Velasco, which runs an early childhood education center for low-income families. Children receive a hands-on learning experience that addresses the impact of trauma that has likely affected them and their families. The organization also offers a women’s empowerment program that helps women start their own small businesses. They provide vocational training, seed money, and mentorship and psychological counseling.
A woman who graduated the program named Esmeralda showed us her massage spa where she also makes her own aromatic soaps and therapeutic oils. She beamed as she told us how she used to be deeply depressed because she had no way to provide for her family. Now, because of the empowerment program, she has a successful business she can be proud of.
These nonprofits work diligently to improve the country. But the harsh reality is the government, because of unbridled corruption and disastrously high national debt, is doing little for the people, but perpetuating inequality and the conditions that caused the war in the first place.
Journey to the U.S.
This webbed catalyst of violence, oppression and poverty drives Salvadorans to make the life-risking journey of more than 2,000 miles to the United States. Hundreds of thousands disappear on their way, largely because of human trafficking by the Mexican drug cartels.
About 300 people leave El Salvador every day, Mena said. Nine out of 10 women will be sexually abused on their journey. During a solidarity walk on one of the migrant routes in Mexico, Mena saw bras hanging from trees, the “trophies” of victimizers.
An organization called COFAMIDE began to help families look for missing migrants because their government did nothing about the problem. They send search parities into Mexico looking for family members, dead or alive.
Another nonprofit called ALSARE (Alliance for Salvadoran Returnees) helps Salvadorans assimilate back into their country after being deported. Juan Ramon Toledo started the organization because he had to leave his family in the U.S. after living there for 30 years. He had nowhere to go in El Salvador and couldn’t find a job related to his education and career in the States. He realized that is the struggle for most returnees, who are coming back to El Salvador by the thousands.
Toledo said in 2017, 52,000 Salvadorans returned. Only 2 percent were criminals.
“When we return to this country from the U.S., we don’t have any dignity,” Toledo said.
A stigma exists against returnees, where many Salvadorans view them as failures or assume they committed crimes that got them deported. The organizations are well aware of the stigma migrants get in the United States and they implore for understanding from Americans and for the human rights of migrants to be respected.
Back in El Paisnal, a young woman named Fátima stands in front of our delegation. She trembles slightly, but she’s steady and resolute. She tells us it has always been her dream to go to school. She wants to attend university to get a degree in social work, so she can help her people. She has already tried every avenue to get scholarships and has been turned away. Her society has no way to help her. She looks at us. Vulnerably, she lays her dream at our feet. Only we can help her now.
Salvadorans and other Central Americans now approach our border, sweat-soaked and trauma-laden. The United States participated in their pain that brings them to us. The least we can do is participate in their healing.
Be sure to read part one of this series.
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